Monday, December 6, 2010
When it's THIS Good He Ain't EVER too Old (A "Review" of Chuck Berry's 84th Birthday Show at the Pageant on October 16, 2010)
Chuck Berry turns 84 on Monday, but tonight, in St. Louis, he turned 40.
You could see it and hear it in the very first notes, in the perfect intros, in the old Chuck Berry riffs, played perfectly by a grinning, happy, Chuck Berry.
It was beautiful.
His guitar was ringing like a bell (most of time!). His singing voice was young, wry and full of humor. He scooted 2 and 1/2 times (the 1/2 to get his grandson going!) He shook his shoulders, showed us his shoes (twice!), played from his shoulder, strummed, and thumped and and picked like a MF.
I feel like the luckiest guy in the world-- except that there was a full house of lucky folk, and a very happy time was had by all.
There is something outlandishly wonderful about these St. Louis shows-- Chuck Berry on stage in the city he so evidently loves, surrounded by band members he's played with for years (and whom he so evidently loves), surrounded by family on stage and off. A huge contingent of Berrys sat to my right, including his wife Themetta, and four of them worked the stage. Darlin' Ingrid Clay Berry played harp and sang; Charles II played guitar, and Charles III played guitar right beside him-- until he was coaxed by granddad into doing the scoot! And Charles Edward Anderson Berry played and sang and moved like he was at his own 40th birthday party.
Somewhere, someone out there has good photographs of this show. Send them to me! In the meantime I'll do what I can with what I've got from my crappy little camera and my pathetic camera skills.
The band-- as usual, they were great. Chuck kept returning to Bob Lohr and encouraging him to do his thing on keyboards. Keith Robinson and Jim Marsala held the beat, which never faltered. Charles II and Charles III wailed when asked, and held down the fort the rest of the time. And Ingrid was spectacular. (I've heard her on records for decades, and seen her on film and video, but never live. Glad I finally got the chance.) My brother, who loves dance, came to the show and was talking afterwords about how Ingrid and Chuck know how to move. And isn't that part of it? Even when he's just walking on stage Chuck Berry does it with such charisma and grace that you can't stop looking. And Ingrid? When she bends down in those black leather pants, or leans back and blows-- well, you can't stop looking at that, either. What a family.
There was a special moment when Ingrid had crossed the stage and looked up to her dad at the end of a solo. He locked eyes with her and mouthed the words "I love you."
The men got a more boyish nod. "See that boy over there on the right, playing guitar? That's Charles Berry! And see that bald-headed guy playing guitar right next to him? That's also Charles Berry!"
(Do I sound surprised? I guess in a sense I am. The last time I saw him, at Blueberry Hill, he put on a great show, with a lot of great rhythm guitar and beautiful singing-- but his fingers weren't really finding the notes on lead. And the reviews from Phoenix weren't especially kind. [Of course, Arizona is earning a reputation as the unkindest state.] But tonight, for most of the show, he couldn't miss, and he clearly knew it.)
Meanwhile, during "Carol," he started thinking ("I do that sometimes!") and it became "Little Queenie" for a bit. Then back to Carol, thumping on the strings like a drum. There was a moment he was singing "oh" to the girl so plaintively you thought he might cry!
He began "Wee Wee Hours" with the patented intro you might hear on "I've Got a Booking" then took us all to blues school. I love Chuck Berry's rock and roll, but I probably love his blues even more. The first time I pushed open a door to see the man live 40 years ago he was singing blues to a half filled auditorium, bending notes in his own way, and tonight he did it on "Wee Wee Hours" and another blues song I didn't recognize, sharing both with Ingrid on harp. At a couple of points during the blues numbers he began doing a rhythm riff-- a 12 note arpeggio from an old blues that I'll identify later (It'll come to me!). Anyway, another rabbit from the hat.
He finished with "Reelin' and Rockin'," which didn't last till the break of dawn, but kept going for about the closest thing to an encore that I've seen Chuck Berry do, when he got most of the way off stage, then came back to sit on the drum riser and play a while longer. And then a bit of "House Lights," and he left.
Which was enough.
But I got lucky. After the show I got a chance to meet my hero for a couple minutes in the dressing room, and give him some small gifts. I babbled and gushed, told him what I thought of him, (which is some pretty good things), and thanked him as best I can for what he's done for me and all of us. I shook his hand, and touched his shoulder, and he bumped my forearm. I gave him the picture I drew of him when I was 17 off the Bio cover. I gave him Doug's photo of him kneeling and playing. I gave him printouts of interviews from some people who love him, like Judy, Karen, Bob, Bob and Daryl. It's something I'll never forget. Special thanks to Bob Lohr and Jim Marsala for that one.
Someday I'll find words. Tonight? Just reporting. And feeling like my cross-continental journey was well worth it. And it's just starting! Wednesday? Blueberry Hill!